Lester Mackey '07, Ph.D., alumnus

Lester Mackey ’07, recently earned a Ph.D. in statistical machine learning at the University of California, Berkeley, and will join the statistics faculty at Stanford University in 2013 as an assistant professor.

When at Princeton, he enjoyed teaming up with other computer science students to devise useful, creative solutions to real-world problems.

For his “Advanced Programming” class, Mackey and some classmates wrote software that helped Princeton students pick dorm rooms for the following year. They built a database of all existing Princeton rooms and devised various search features, including a system for users to rate their rooms. After the project was done, Mackey worked with the student government to get the search engine online.

Mackey also collaborated with two fellow Princetonians to write an algorithm as part of a public contest created by Netflix, the DVD rental company, to improve its automated movie recommendation system. The project was so time-intensive that the students persuaded the program in applied and computational mathematics to let them complete the work for University credit. Ultimately the Princeton trio placed second in the $1 million competition as part of an international collaboration.

While Mackey devoted much of his time and energy at Princeton to computer science, that’s only one of his passions. As a senior in high school, Mackey took sixth place in the Intel Science Talent Search, the nation’s most prestigious science competition for high school students. His project focused on mathematics confirming Seymour’s Conjecture for a set of regular graphs using combinatorics.

The Long Island, New York, native also loves language and poetry. Among his favorite Princeton classes was “Origin and Nature of the English Language,” and he loved his upper-level Spanish courses, which delved deeply into culture, literature and current events. Mackey also took a poetry course with Pulitzer Prize-winner Paul Muldoon.

With all of these interests, Mackey found that his busy schedule did not allow him much unstructured free time for personal writing projects. To address this problem for himself and others, he helped create the Free Writing Hour, a scheduled block of time where writers can gather in a room and do nothing but write.

In what was left of his spare time, Mackey sang in the Chapel Choir and the Kindred Spirit a cappella group; was an officer of Paideia, a dinner discussion group led by a different Princeton professor each week; and was one of the editors of Prism, a University literary journal devoted to diversity.

During his senior year at Princeton, Mackey was one of two seniors awarded the Pyne Prize, the highest honor the University gives to an undergraduate.